The economics of compassion

by Erna Mahyuni
The Malaysian Insider
Jul 06, 2011

JULY 6 — The ETP is meaningless. Or at least it is to the man on the street. “Where do they get the numbers from?” a fellow I know asks me. The only numbers that mean anything to him right now are the prices of his food.

His shi cha (iced Chinese tea) and his chap fan (mixed rice) cost more these days while he isn’t earning more. And that is the reality for most Malaysians as we find prices rising while our incomes remain flat.

If the middle-class are feeling the pinch, what more those in the lower-income bracket? While the government spends millions on labs that are supposed to fix whatever problems we have, the poor remain poor.

I get angry when those who know nothing of poverty claim that with hard work, anyone can buy what they want or be who they want to be. Poverty is called a trap for a reason. It is easier to fall out of wealth than to come into it. And for those already poor or born into poverty, the odds are against them from the start.

I hear the same refrains from the same people about the so-called “poor and lazy.”

“Their own fault for having so many kids.”

“Lazy drunkards-lah they all.”

“We work hard, they should too. My tax money shouldn’t be used to help them. They should help themselves.”

It is unfair to expect children brought up with poor nutrition, in squalid conditions and challenging home environments to do as well as the middle-class and wealthy. The rich have no right to expect the poor to save themselves when the wealth of a few hinges on the desperation of the many.

Without sweatshops and cheap labour, we wouldn’t be paying the low prices we do for all things from food to clothing. Malaysian employers are guilty of paying employees as little as they can get away with all in the name of profit.

Henry Ford, when chided over the comparatively high wages he paid his workers, answered that if he didn’t pay his workers enough, how could they afford to buy his cars?

Poverty is a problem that breeds plenty of other problems. Crime, disease, social unrest — all these are exacerbated by poverty. Poverty is everyone’s problem — not just the poor’s.

The economics of compassion works this way — lowering poverty levels isn’t an act of generosity. It is not about feeling good or getting brownie points. It is sheer pragmatism. Fewer poor people equals more people spending money. Consumption, spending and spreading the ringgit around — that is the heart of capitalism.

Eradicating poverty benefits the many but wealth is mainly concentrated in a collective of the few. I am not advocating a communist ideal where equality is artificially induced, with brute force if necessary. What I am saying is that addressing economic imbalance makes sense as well as sen.

The first steps would be imposing fair wage policies and making quality education accessible to all income levels. Level the playing fields by making sure everyone will be empowered to support themselves and help poor and rich children alike get access to good public education at all levels.

This world we were born into is a patently unfair one. We are all dealt hands which we have to play the best we can. But the world isn’t a casino. It is not about cashing in, emptying the pot and taking everyone else for all they have. If life is a game, then it is one where we are all on the same side. Maybe those few star players may be paid a bit more while those players born without legs, do we leave them out of the game?

Life is a better game when we make sure that everyone can play.

  1. #1 by best4rakyat on Wednesday, 6 July 2011 - 8:59 am

    Real few good article I have read include this one!

    So believe out there many malaysian are really sound intellectual and want to be good.

    Leaders you have an important role to understand in their position include our Prime Mininster and his teams.

    If anyone are unable or still finding own comfort way please retreat and make way for other.Specially those in-charge or intact with people socially such like in education,human energy and welfare.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Wednesday, 6 July 2011 - 9:12 am

    //The ETP is meaningless. “Where do they get the numbers from?”//– Jib got them by randomly pressing the keys of his Casio FX570 calculator.

    //“Their own fault for having so many kids.”//– In a way, this is correct. India is due to overtake China as the most populous country in 2050. Why have so many kids if you cannot afford to house, feed and educate them?

  3. #3 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 6 July 2011 - 9:40 am

    Actually Henry Ford was interesting in the sense he was anti-communist and anti-union but was a socialist. Truth be told, the car industry was an infant industry with high productivity that could afford the luxury of paying above market wages.

    But truth be told a system where employees are not put in position to benefit from productivity results in the low wages we see. The argument that workers get paid only AFTER the productivity increase is tenous because productivity prediction is NOT an exact science. It can be argued that workers need to be protected from being robbed of productivity improvements. For example if local wages were pegged to profit BEFORE allowing in foreign workers, it would have avoided the problems we have today..

    The same way, there are rising profit in GLCs, but rank and file workers, except for a few, do not have stock options or ownership. Why was it not implemented before and only the managers get them?

  4. #4 by drngsc on Wednesday, 6 July 2011 - 10:17 am

    Sad but true,

    This government has lost touch with the people. Putrajaya has become part of the problem.
    While food prices go up ( it is very obvious. We all eat daily, so we know ), they spend millions on PR campaign, and other wastages.

    We need to change the tenant at Putrajaya

  5. #5 by Joshua on Wednesday, 6 July 2011 - 12:00 pm

    some clues on hardship relief here

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